Though often mistakenly referred to as rice wine, sake is produced more like beer, fermented from grain, not fruit. Yet a growing number of innovative brewers in Japan are borrowing techniques from the wine world. With wine consumption in Japan growing at a steady pace—at 5 percent each year for a decade—sake brewers have begun to explore the concept of terroir, reclaim ancient fermentation vessels, and embrace the méthode champenoise. Until recently, modern sake has been neatly categorized almost exclusively by rice milling levels, but many brewers are beginning to question this definition, believing it is not the most important aspect of what a sake tastes like or represents.
“Today there are a lot of breweries who don’t put junmai ginjo or daiginjo on their bottles because they want people to focus on something else about their sake, like regionality,” says Monica Samuels, director of sake and spirits for the importer Vine Connections.
As brewers challenge traditional classifications and explore new techniques and production methods, Japanese sake is seeing an unprecedented amount of innovation that’s redefining how we understand the category’s range of styles.
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Premium Sparkling Sake Takes Off
Japan surpassed Germany as Champagne’s third biggest export market four years ago, and this growing interest in bubbles has captured the imagination of brewers. Regulations on bubbly sake are pretty open-ended in Japan—one can simply force carbonate, like a soda. But the Awasake Association (awa means foam), formed in 2016 by nine sake brewers wanting to set standards for premium sparkling sake production, exclusively use méthode champenoise.
In Champagne, France, producers routinely add a small dosage of sugar to kick-start a second fermentation in the bottle. Japanese brewers are forbidden by law from adding sugar, so they must find other ways to create bubbles. Masumi, a brewery in Nagano, solves the problem by brewing two batches. One is pasteurized and the other is blended in during bottling while its enzymes and yeasts are still active, which provides the additional fermentation. In the bottle, lees aging doesn’t create the yeasty, bread-like aromas found in Champagne, though it does help create a smooth mousse.
Today the Awasake Association has more than doubled in size since it was founded, with 19 member breweries, including brands that have a significant presence in the U.S., like Nanbu Bijin, Dewazakura, and Hakkaisan. Other breweries are also employing méthode champenoise without becoming members, and the association has created a special seal to designate membership and guarantee both quality and method.
Seeking Terroir Expression
Other sake brewers are bringing concepts from the vineyard into the rice field. Certain rice varieties grow better in certain areas: Yamada Nishiki in Hyogo Prefecture is noted for the elegant sake it produces; Omachi from Okayama is said to yield deep, rich sakes. Yamagata Prefecture, home to breweries such as Dewazakura and Toko, established a Geographical Indication (GI) for their sake in 2018, with regulations that detail the rice variety and acceptable brewing procedures. “This is really important,” Samuels says, “because it’s the first time that brewers are required to use local rice and local yeast, and to brew in a specific way.”
Individual brewers have taken that concept further. Ama No To, a brewery in Akita, has adopted what wineries would call an estate model, sourcing their rice solely from fields within sight of their brewery. It remains to be seen if rice is capable of developing a recognizable terroir, especially given how milling ratios, koji (a mold that breaks rice carbohydrates into sugars), and yeast strains can impact the character of a sake.
Rethinking Milling Ratios
Whether rice is an effective conductor of terroir is debatable, says Samuels. But she argues that these efforts really reflect an urge to move the conversation past milling levels—the classification of sake’s quality solely by the amount of a rice’s grain that has been polished away. “Many brewers don’t believe that rice polishing ratios are representative enough of the sake they’re making. They feel like they need some other classification to define their style.”
The classification of sake by milling ratios is actually a recent development; modern milling machines were only developed in 1933. Before that, producing ginjo or daiginjo sake, where the rice is milled to less than 60 percent or 50 percent of its original grain size, respectively, would have been impossible. While mainstream styles highlight the purity of intensive milling, some brewers are questioning the assumption that more milling yields higher quality.
“Milling rice makes sake lighter and clean [in] mouthfeel,” says Toshio Ueno, vice president of the Sake School of America, “but not milling much more than 70 precent will retain some protein and thus create umami-rich sake with a little more body and complexity.” Ueno says sake drinkers and sushi chefs in Japan often favor sakes made with less milled rice with food because of that umami character, so many sushi restaurants carry more of these sakes than the more aromatic ginjo or daiginjo styles.
At Senkin brewery, an hour north of Tokyo, Kazuki Usui only mills the rice for his Nature sake to 90 percent of its original size—just enough to remove the brown outer coating and lipids that would create off-flavors and interfere with fermentation. For Usui, it’s one step in creating what he calls Edo-style sake, reflecting how it would have been made during the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868.
Reclaiming Ancient Styles: Kimoto and Yamahai
Lactic acid is used as a preservative to prevent spoilage during sake production; after 1910 breweries learned to add it manually, which is quicker and easier to control. Earlier brewers used the kimoto or yamahai method; both rely on naturally occurring lactic bacteria to create that acid. Kimoto is the older, more labor-intensive style; the brewer mashes the rice into a paste, in principle to make it more receptive to the lactic bacteria. In 1906 it was discovered that the mashing was unnecessary for bacterial development, leading to the yamahai style, which omits that step.
At Senkin, Usui uses the most traditional, kimoto method, and also ferments the sake in cedar tanks rather than modern stainless steel. The resulting sake is powerful, with some earthy notes and more pronounced acidity than is usual in a sake.
Both kimoto and yamahai styles are seeing a resurgence; some producers include the method in the sake’s name, but others don’t advertise the fact, it’s just the way they do things. Masumi makes all their sakes using the yamahai method, and Daishichi, Tengumai, and Tamagawa make notable examples of kimoto and yamahai sakes as well.
Reining in Alcohol
Sake’s multiple parallel fermentation, wherein enzymes convert starches into sugar at the same time as yeast turns that sugar into alcohol, results in the highest levels of alcohol of any fermented beverage. A finished sake typically comes in at over 18 percent alcohol, and it’s standard practice to add water and reduce that down to 16 percent or so. But today some breweries are going even lower, aiming for alcohol levels more common in the world of wine.
Lower alcohol sakes aren’t new, but in the past they were often fruity, simple, and cheap. Today premium, quality-driven producers are embracing this style. This year World Sake Imports is bringing in a sake from Tedorigawa that is under 13 percent ABV and made from rice around their area. “It’s made with the yamahai brewing method, so it’s more savory; you’re not going to get so much of the aromatics,” explains World Sake Imports founder Chris Pearce.
While in the past brewers often lowered the alcohol by simply adding more water to the sake after brewing, today many manipulate the proportions of koji, yeast, and rice during brewing to bring the alcohol levels down before any water additions. This, in addition to the yamahai method, helps retain more texture in the sake, in spite of its lower ABV.
Jim Clarke writes about wine, beer, and spirits for trade and consumer publications, including Beverage Media, Fortune, and World of Fine Wine. He is a sommelier and the U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa.